Earlier versions of the story did not include the full title of the Humane Society of the United States. This version has been corrected.
A Blood Sport Exposed
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
It's a disturbing narrative, the 19-page indictment of football star Michael Vick and three of his friends. Perhaps the details shocked people unfamiliar with the secretive world of illegal dogfighting: the breeding and training of pit bulls for savage, high-stakes combat and the brutal executions of dogs that fail to measure up.
Dogs shot, hanged, drowned, beaten, electrocuted. An awful story.
Yet to animal-welfare workers, the ugly particulars were far from surprising. They said the dogfighting subculture is deeply entrenched in the United States. And in that shadowy realm, they said, the sort of business allegedly conducted on property owned by Vick in rural Surry County, Va., has been going on for generations, especially in the rural South.
"For us, the Vick case has had tremendous value," said Jeff Dorson, a Louisiana Humane Society official. "We've been trying to tell the public how typical this is, how widespread it is, the horrors the animals go through. . . . It's opened the curtain so everyone can see what's going on."
Vick, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and a former Virginia Tech all-American, is scheduled to plead guilty Monday to dogfighting-related offenses, with federal guidelines calling for a prison term in the range of 12 to 18 months, according to his attorneys and sources familiar with the case. His co-defendants have pleaded guilty.
The blood sport goes on.
"Dog men," they call themselves, the untold numbers of breeders and fighters. With their pastime illegal everywhere in the country, they stay in touch through secret networks and underground magazines. They say they love to compete. They tell themselves the pit bulls love it, too.
"The reason for the Michael Vick thing . . . is because athletes have a keen insight into courage and determination, which is what pit bulls possess," said Bill Stewart, a breeder in Romance, Ark., who publishes the Pit Bull Reporter. "Athletes understand better than anyone what dogfighting is about. It's about two highly conditioned athletes going at each other with everything they have to try to win. It's the purest form of combat on earth."
To dog men, all dogs are curs except the American pit bull terrier, descended from canines used in English blood sports centuries ago.
Animal-protection workers and others who have infiltrated the underworld of pit bull fighting say dog men train their animals for weeks before bouts, perverting the dietary and fitness sciences to build ferocious canine maulers.
They perform unlicensed veterinary surgery on the grievously wounded and stud their battle-scarred champs, often for fees in the hundreds of dollars. A pit bull in its prime with a string of victories can fetch $10,000 or more. To save on upkeep and preserve the breed, weaklings are destroyed, either painlessly or with a vengeance.
The illegal bouts, in carpeted 16-by-16-foot pits surrounded by four-foot walls, are staged in hidden venues, usually with no more than a few dozen spectators allowed. Elaborate, decades-old rules are followed. Bets are posted in cash, sometimes five figures. Afterward, dog men tend to their pit bulls' injuries, provided the animals fought gamely. They won't tolerate dogs that quit.